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Years before Linda Lukey became director of testing and prior learning assessment (PLA) at Rio Salado College (RSC) in Arizona, she was on a pathway similar to that of many adult learners: Lukey had earned a variety of credits from various higher education institutions, held several jobs and participated in volunteer programs, but she had not yet earned a degree.
When she enrolled at Ottawa University and ultimately earned her bachelor's degree, the colleges awarded her 24 of the 48 credits she needed to graduate through a portfolio building and assessment process that showed and validated her skills and knowledge from those previous experiences.
“Ever since I accomplished that, I have been very passionate about the possibilities out there for the working adult, for the older student, for the person who has to re-career and earn a different degree,” Lukey said.
When it recently came time for her department at RSC to consider adding a portfolio assessment option to the college’s PLA-oriented offerings, Lukey looked at LearningCounts.org, an electronic portfolio-assessment initiative from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). In September, RSC launched the service through its credit for prior learning division.
“People are just starting to contact us to see what this is all about, how they can get started and whether or not it is right for them,” she said. “It’s growing.”
Assessed by outside experts
The two-year-old LearningCounts.org gives adult learners an alternative way to earn college credit through a portfolio assessment process that CAEL continues to develop. It uses a web-based platform to create electronic portfolios that are assessed by expert faculty members from across the U.S. who examine the content and breadth of each student’s on-the-job learning, corporate training, independent study, military service and volunteer service. The group then recommends how much college credit the student should receive for those experiences.
Adult learners can build their own the portfolios through one of two courses: a for-credit, online, six-week, instructor-led course at $500, or a non-credit, self-paced workshop that can be done over a weekend for $129.
CAEL-member institutions can participate as partners or “partners plus.” Currently, CAEL has about 500 members with more than 100 using LearningCounts.org. Membership fees, which range from $420-$759, are based on the size of the institution.
According to CAEL, the online tool is geared toward a diverse audience—from adults who want to earn a degree or earn a higher one, to people who want to switch careers, including military veterans. By getting credit for their previous experiences, students can attain their credential faster and at a lower cost.
In addition, advocates note that getting PLA credits also appear to motivate students to stay in school to complete a credential. A recent CAEL white paper found that students with PLA credits were 2.5 times more likely to persist to graduation than students without such credits.
CAEL has received more than $6 million for the initiative from foundations such as the Kresge Foundation and Lumina Foundation, which supports projects that cut time-to-degree as one way to produce nearly 800,000 more college graduates annually through 2025 to meet growing workforce needs.
Providing a common language
Houston Community College (HCC) in Texas is using CAEL’s tool in its relatively new Advanced College Credit initiative, which includes a website that provides information to students on earning credit through a variety of alternative pathways.
CAEL resources and reports on prior learning assessments
Madeline Burillo, associate vice chancellor for workforce instruction at HCC, said LearningCounts.org alleviates a common concern of faculty at her college as well as other colleges: the subjectivity of assessing portfolios.
“They wanted a way in which assessing portfolios could be more objective,” Burillo said. “Especially in large community college systems where you have different colleges, a department chair at one college might have a different opinion about a portfolio than a department chair from another college.”
LearningCounts.org provides that consistency, and the college felt that accrediting agencies would accept the evaluation process, Burillo said.
Making it easier
North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC) already had a portfolio-assessment process, but it was cumbersome and wasn’t getting much buy-in from faculty. Lyn Brodersen, the college’s vice president academic and student affairs, and John Sjolinder, training industry coordinator in continuing education, tested LearningCounts.org to see if would be a better fit.
Brodersen liked the ease for both students and evaluators. When students finish their portfolios, they upload them to a site where the selected faculty members assess the work, she said.
“For years I have listened to people out in industry say ‘I sure wish I could get some kind of credit for all this training I have taken,’” Sjolinder said. “We have not had a good vehicle for doing this until now.”
It’s still too early to determine the exact numbers of students using LearningCounts.org at RSC, HCC and NIACC. But officials from those colleges are optimistic that the program will help their students as well as employers looking for skilled workers.
“We know that in Iowa our population of people under 25 years of age is going to continue to decline over the next 20 years,” Brodersen said. “Our audience will be the adult learner, and there has to be a way to get them in the front door, get them comfortable and get them thinking about attending college.”
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges